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Poor reviews for Census Super Bowl ad

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 3:53 p.m. ET
Media critics seem to agree: The U.S. Census Bureau should keep to counting people and stay out of the advertising business.

The agency spent $2.5 million on a 30-second ad that aired during the third quarter of Sunday night's Super Bowl, a price tag also earned them two spots during the pregame show and two on-air mentions by CBS Sports anchor James Brown.

The ad was directed by Christopher Guest and starred Ed Begley Jr. and alums of Guest's cult classics, "Best in Show," "For Your Consideration" and "A Mighty Wind."

The ad is one of a five-part series that the agency hopes will spread virally out from a Facebook fan page and YouTube. (The agency prohibits bloggers and third party sites from copying and pasting embed code of the ads, blaming contractual restrictions -- a decision that likely means the agency's viral efforts will fail. UPDATE: The agency's YouTube channel now provides the embed code. Was somebody listening?!)

Entertainment Weekly named the spot one of Sunday night's five worst, stating, "How weird to hire all those funny character actors, then accidentally air an unfinished version of a commercial that left us all wondering what the frak we just watched!"

The ad also ranked poorly in USA Today's annual Super Bowl ad viewer survey, ranking towards the bottom between a ad and one for the new Wolfman movie. (But it did beat the controversial ad starring Tim Tebow.)

Advertisers are often willing to fork over millions of dollars for a Super Bowl spot in hopes of free day-after buzz. So perhaps most insulting of all, some ad critics completely ignored the Census spot. Slate's Seth Stevenson didn't mention it in his review of an "uninspiring slate" of commercial offerings, and The Post's television critic Tom Shales also ignored the ad (Shales concluded that the David Letterman-Oprah Winfrey-Jay Leno "Late Show" promo was the night's best -- and The Eye agrees).

The conservative editorial board at the New Hampshire Union-Leader seized on the Census ad's price tag, calling it a "Super blunder" and lamenting that the spot cost only 1.9 percent of the Census Bureau's total advertising budget.

The editors echoed concerns raised last week by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). Both lawmakers have sought justifications for the big purchase.

"There has been a great deal of buzz about the Census ads this week which is raising awareness at just the right time," said Census Bureau spokesman Steven Jost.

"No single ad carries the whole burden of this massive outreach and education effort," he said. "Our goal now is to raise awareness that the Census is coming in March. Then we will shift to more direct messaging that your Census form will be arriving by mail and inspiring folks to 'mail it back.'"

Officials have also justified the costs by noting that any publicity about the 2010 Census -- good or bad -- should help save taxpayer money in the long run. A higher census response rate cuts the need for temporary workers to conduct expensive follow up interviews, the agency said.

"If 1% of folks watching #SB44 [Super Bowl 44] change mind and mail back #2010Census form, taxpayers save $25 million in follow up costs," the bureau Tweeted on Sunday night.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | February 8, 2010; 11:46 AM ET
Categories:  Census  
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Next: 2011 Budget: Brian Williams, Jimmy Fallon 'slow jam' the details



To raise "awareness" of the Census?


And it comes with a typical bureaucratic justification: it'll save money in the long run!


Posted by: SWester2010 | February 8, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

What a joke. Why is the govt wasting advertisement money on the census? I really wonder how off count a census is vs Income Tax? The only ones missing from IRS are the illegals. I'm not sure why spend all this extra money, hiring bean counters to go door to door, except to show new short term jobs? Do you really think if 5 families are living(renting) under 1 roof illegally, is going to give true numbers out for fear of being deported?

Posted by: larry40 | February 8, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I have to say that I am angry that the government saw fit to spend that kind of money of what amounts to a costly public service announcement. It's as bad as the way they create whole new agencies every time they have an "idea" instead of streamlining the thousands already in existence to make them work. Is this why we pay taxes???? Makes you wonder just what their definition of fiscal responsibility is. It sure isn't the same as those of us who must practice it to survive.

Posted by: Lilycat1 | February 8, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Hate to name-call, but near-idiots are running the country.

Posted by: Billw3 | February 8, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with the negative review of the Census Ad. I wonder whether some people disliked the ad partly because they do not like the government funding such an expensive ad. Politics aside, I thought the ad was smart and funny.

Posted by: kristaJ11 | February 8, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

What does it matter? The census is being run under the supervision of Vice President Biden. Does ANYONE trust the impartiality of that man? Here come a rash of new extrapolations and estimates of uncounted people. The constitution calls for an enumeration of the population every ten years, not an estimate which can be fudged by politicians with an agenda.(See Vice President)

Posted by: M1Rifleman1940 | February 8, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

1) I believe that ads for the Census in general are cost-justified, but does the highly educated audience that would get this type of ad need targeting? (Maybe - we're all cynical and negelectful.)

2) The execution is poor - I like this kind of humor but the connection to the Census is weak.

Posted by: justsayin | February 8, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

And this tidbit would be worth pursuing, Mr. O'Keefe:
"(The agency prohibits bloggers and third party sites from copying and pasting embed code of the ads, blaming contractual restrictions -- a decision that likely means the agency's viral efforts will fail.)"

Huh?? What happened? Change the contract.

Posted by: justsayin | February 8, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Gutsy effort on part of the Census Bureau to reach out to America's massive Super Bowl audience! Perhaps, a bit of cost analysis per viewer is in order -- me thinketh a few pennies per viewer, if that much, might make the message cost effective. But definitely the follow-on criticism, whether accurate or not, enhances the value of the Census Bureau's ad effort to get its message out.

Posted by: EVisionA2Z | February 8, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I'd say that just a few of the comments on this post alone justifies spending money to get word out on the census.

Posted by: dadada | February 8, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

With regard to the review of the US Census Bureau ad that appeared during the Super Bowl, you can view how this ad fared among all other Super Bowl ads in a study of thousands of participants conducted by HCD Research by going to

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for HCD Research, a marketing research firm that produces and its annual Super Bowl study.

The methodology used was as follows:

During the game, the Super Bowl ads were inserted into an on-line survey and sent to thousands of study participants. Participants answered questions regarding their perceptions of the ads using various parameters, including breakthrough, emotion, memorability and involvement. They also utilized an on-line dial testing system to indicate their levels of interest as they watch the ads.

The interest levels were analyzed in the form of curves to determine which commercials had the highest sustained levels of interest. The curves were used as part of a metric to calculate and rank the advertisements. The metric also includes a measurement for emotions and an index for “word of mouth” impact of the ads.

Posted by: richberke | February 8, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

The ad targets were financially challenged individuals and individuals who are undereducated, all of whom are traditionally Democratic voters. Enough said.

Posted by: jmhfnr | February 8, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Another no-brainer! There goes another 2.5 million up in smoke.Taxpayers have had enough!! What are the qualifications of the people running this show???

Posted by: djnumerouno | February 8, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

The 2.5 million dollars of taxpayer money used to run the Superbowl ad and the 133 million being spent by the Census Bureau on advertising is a huge waste of our money. When will this administration learn to listen to the taxpayers and stop wasting our money. Obama must go !

To offset this waste I suggest not returning any census form to save the postage. We all know the illegals in the country are not counted and why waste time and money on such an incomplete survey.

Posted by: keithbutts | February 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Why doesn't the Census Bureau simply cut to the chase?

You are LEGALLY OBLIGATED to participate in the census. If you don't, the government will send somebody out to murder your puppy.

Posted by: Wallenstein | February 8, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

The GOP wants to ensure that minorities and Democrats are not counted in the Census to make the count Fair and Balanced.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | February 8, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Why not license the "Boondocks" cartoon from 10 years ago? "Census taker, fool! Respect my authori-tay!!"

Posted by: KSVA | February 8, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Lemme see - it's okay to blow that money on a "Don't Do Drugs Ad", but wasteful when it comes to alerting people to the upcoming Census?

If you ask me - CBS or whomever broadcasts the Super Bowl should donate a 30-sec spot to the government every year in exchange for the public airwaves. Make it a PSA, an appeal for Haiti funds, promote the Census, get a flu shot whatever...

Posted by: dandec | February 8, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Because not returning your census form will turn you into a drug addict?

Posted by: member8 | February 8, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

If I remember correctly from the 2000 census, there were plenty of advertisements around for that as well.

Because they want people to know it's coming so they don't throw away the forms or turn away census takers. I've known plenty of people who do both.

What's new is that the Internet lets people openly air the fact they think it's stupid it needs advertising.

I didn't think the ad was bad, I think it's just an unsexy topic and people are kinda anti-government right now.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | February 8, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

First of all, US Census, the type of people who appreciate Christopher Guest's type of humor are probably not the people you need to be reaching.

Posted by: jw703 | February 8, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

This is why we have to expand the government. To get more nitwits off welfare and stupidly spend our money like this census ad. The ludicrous justification says it all.

Posted by: llrllr | February 8, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

If you really want to save taxpayer money you would complete your census form and return it by the due date. Postage is prepaid on all census forms (this is why you don't have to put a stamp on it) so not returning it will not save any money. In addition, not returning the form means that the government must spend an insane amount of money to pay temp workers to drive out to your house and collect the data in person. If you are trying to provide more employment for your neighbors this is good, but it is a definite drain on taxpayer dollars. If you avoid this person they have to make the trip again.

IRS forms are inadequate for an enumeration. Most notably the unemployed and children do not pay taxes and therefore would not be counted (in addition to people working 'under the table' and/or illegal immigrants).

Of course it is up to you whether you fill out the form or not, but using the excuse of saving taxpayer dollars is just illogical.

Posted by: neby | February 8, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

It was another typical pathetic waste of taxpayer money. These government weenies should just do their jobs and quit wasting additional tax money.

Posted by: scott16 | February 8, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: drmullings | February 9, 2010 4:53 AM | Report abuse

I suppose they had to stimulate CBS, right, so it's ok. More debt for our grandchildren, but CBS makes more money. Yay.

Posted by: member8 | February 9, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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